How to take a family holiday in term-time

Skiing in term time

 By Mark Frary

To book or not to book? That is the question. By this I mean booking a family holiday during term time. Like a growing number of parents, I fall on the “to book” side of the divide.

I feel that there is a value to taking holidays in term time occasionally and not just a financial one. I feel that the nature of the modern family, often time poor and geographically dispersed, means that taking holidays during periods when the children should be in school are increasingly common.

According to the latest government figures, the percentage of pupils who missed at least one session because of any family holiday increased from 7.6% in the 2015-16 academic year to 9.4% in 2016-17.

What does the law say?

Until a few years ago, parents were able to take their children out of school during term time for a holiday for up to 10 days as long as there were “special circumstances”. In most cases, parents’ requests were just waved through by the head teacher as long as the children had a reasonable record of attendance.

In 2013, the rules were tightened considerably – the reference to 10 days was removed and parents could from that point only take their children out of school with the prior approval of the head teacher and only if there were “exceptional circumstances”.

In April 2017, parent Jon Platt lost a case at the Supreme Court after taking his daughter to Florida during term time and refusing to pay a fine imposed by Isle of Wight council. Platt argued that his daughter had a 92% record of attendance at school at the time and that it should be for the parent rather than the school to decide whether this constituted regular attendance.

What fines can you expect?

At schools in England, if you do not get prior approval for a term-time absence, you potentially face a fine of £60 per pupil and per parent. This rises to £120 if you don’t pay within 21 days and if you don’t pay then, you may face a custodial sentence.

There are no fines in Scotland and Northern Ireland but head teachers are unlikely to authorise term-time absence. In Wales, head teachers can still grant up to 10 days term-time leave at their discretion.

In the 2015-16 academic year, parents faced fines of nearly £9 million for taking term-time holidays, according to The Independent. However, the newspaper revealed that families face a postcode lottery – Suffolk and Lancashire councils were most likely to fine parents while Richmond council in London issued no fines for this transgression of the rules.

But term time holidays are cheaper!

There is plenty of evidence to show that taking a holiday during term-time can be significantly cheaper than during the school holidays.

One study by FairFX of 120 return flights from eight airports across the UK found that taking a holiday in half term costs an average of nine times the cost earlier in the month.

A survey by insurance website GoCompare of more than 2,000 parents said that they faced an average £651.60 in extra costs for going away during school holiday periods. More than half of those surveyed would take their kids out of school as a result.

There are plenty of individual examples too. A midweek break in a lodge at Center Parcs in Elveden, Suffolk costs £529 for a family of four in early July; if you go a month later, during the holidays, you pay £1,049 for the same lodge. A week’s all-inclusive in a family room at the RIU Bravo in Palma, Majorca booked through TUI with flights from Birmingham costs £2,642 in mid-May compared with £5,551 during the late May bank holiday.

As a result of this uplift, may families choose to take their children out and pay the fines in the knowledge that the total costs of the holiday including the fines will be cheaper.

However, those in the industry argue that travel companies are not intentionally ripping off families and that the whole way that everyone sets prices in the business would need to change if prices were to be evened out over the course of the year. This is highly unlikely to happen as it is an international issue.

Some say that schools need to be more flexible with term dates in order to flatten out the peak of the demand; this also faces challenges, particularly in terms of setting exam dates and for parents with children in different schools.

Also see the best holidays for teenagers after GCSEs.

We play by the rules. When should we go?

Many parents sympathise with teachers who try to educate large classes of pupils against a backdrop of increasing term-time absence; other families have parents who are teachers and are forced to take holidays along with everyone else.

If this is the case, or if your children are at a school where the head teacher is a stickler for the rules or the council is quick to fine parents, then you may decide that you will only take the children away during official holidays.

Some weeks are cheaper than others. Take skiing holidays, for example. February half term is the most expensive of the year while Easter is generally much cheaper, even if the holiday is early in the year.

Easter is also a good time for some of the mid-haul and long-haul destinations where you can enjoy far warmer temperatures than at home and you also have more than a week to get there and back.

You can also be creative. Take Center Parcs. We often go for a weekend in January as this is the cheapest time of the year and many of the activities can still be done even if the weather is bad. You take the kids immediately after school on the Friday and head home late on Sunday or very early on Monday morning.

Don’t forget to look at our information on where’s hot in February, April, May and October.

Best ages to take children out of school

With all of the above, is there any age which is better than others to take the kids on a term-time holiday?

Certainly, you will find that primary schools are generally more flexible than secondary schools, where school work becomes more intense. A primary head teacher may well say they are following the new rules but will actually turn a blind eye to the absence even if it is unauthorised.

It is also a good idea to avoid academic years in which exams – such as SATS, the 11 plus or GCSEs – loom large.

The best educational holidays

I am a big believer in the educational value of holidays.

The excitement of a working holiday on a farm, where the kids get to collect eggs, milk cows or rebuild broken walls is hard to beat, especially for those who are used to more urban environments. It is also a good reminder of the food chain and the invaluable work carried out by farmers.

If your kids have studied Darwin and the Theory of Evolution, how about this incredible tour of the Galapagos Islands where you can expect thrilling up-close encounters with sea lions, turtles, dolphins, giant iguanas, pelicans and penguins.

With the crisis in obesity, may families are keen to get their kids active during holidays doing ‘fun’ activities. Why not try learning to surf on the Alentejo coast of Portugal or a self-guided cycling trip in Europe?

Until holiday dates get staggered or there is a global agreement on reducing prices at peak times, there are still plenty of options, you just have to get creative.

Last updated: 15 November 2021

Before you book

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